History of Islam (Part 5)

The Abbasids surpassed the Umayyads in tyranny against the Fatimids, but the Abbasid Caliph, Al Mahdi’s ten-year rule brought prosperity to people. During his reign, society acquired a cosmopolitan character as the Arabs began losing their supremacy. But it was Harun al-Rashid’s period, immortalized in the Arabian Nights, which witnessed the climax of splendour and pomp of Baghdad, with magnificent buildings and well laid gardens. With beautiful palaces and welladorned mosques with tall minarets it boasted of commodities from every country of the world. The country basked in the sunshine of prosperity, writes DR ABDUL GHAFFAR KHAN.


Much is said about the morals flouted by the Umayyad Khalifs. Hitti gives us an unpleasant shock when he informs:

“Yazid I was the first confirmed drunkard…. won the title Yazid al-Khumur (the Yazid of wine). One of his drinking pranks was the training of a pet monkey Abu-Qays. Yezid drank daily whereas Al-Walid I contented himself with every other day; Hisham, once every Friday after the divine service… the palm for drinking should be handed to… al-Walid II, an incorrigible libertine, who is said to have gone swimming habitually in a pool of wine of which he would gulp enough to lower the surface appreciably. Al-Walid is reported to have opened the Koran one day, and as his eyes fell upon the verse, ‘And every obstinate, arrogant dictator was brought to naught,’ he shot the sacred book to pieces with his bow and arrow, meanwhile repeating in defiance two verses of his own composition”.

How far had the society drifted from the Shariah can be guessed by the following observations:

“Inside the city (Madinah) arose palaces and outside it villas… providing occupants with every variety of luxury. Makkah shared with its sister-city this attractiveness for lovers of pleasure… excesses became more notorious… To Madinah Persian and Byzantine slave songstress flocked in increasing numbers. Amorous poetry kept pace with other new developments. Houses of ill-repute (Buyut al-Qiyan) flourished in Madinah.” (Hitti: 236 – 37)

Bani Abbas

With the fates of the Umayyads sealed with Marwan’s death the last hope was lost and Saffah clinched the reins of power in his hands. Since he had just sat in the saddle, he was scared of Umayyad loyalists roaming all around. He began dealing very sternly with a strong hand. His ruthlessness earned him the sobriquet, Saffah: the blood- shedder. He got several Umayyads captured and executed. Only one Umayyad, Abdul Rahman, could manage to swim the river with arrows raining over him during his flight (while his younger brother, only a few feet behind was pierced). It was he who succeeded in establishing mighty empire in Spain that lasted a few centuries.

Saffah assigned his uncle, Abdullah, the job of eliminating the Umayyad princes. He invited all of them, about eighty in number, to a banquet. At a given signal, a band of executioners entered the banquet hall and clubbed all the Umayyad princes to death and the banquet continued over the corpses on which carpets were spread.

The Abbasid-Alid alliance had emerged solely by a feeling of common hatred against a mighty foe but it did not survive long as the Alids were side-tracked and the Abbasids asserted themselves on the throne. They considered themselves lucky having survived the onslaught that the Umayyad princes suffered. They had their heads safe over their shoulders – that was the only satisfaction they enjoyed. They began to bide time.

As-Saffah died in his early thirties of small pox in 754 CE. He waded through slaughter to power and maintained power through blood shedding.

Abu Jafar Abdullah, who assumed the title Al-Mansur, succeeded Saffah. He was extremely brave and wise with a fair grasp of his predicaments. He proved one of the greatest, though most unscrupulous, of the Abbasid rulers. His uncle, Abdullah, who had master-minded the elimination of Umayyad princes in a banquet met his hoary end when he staked his claim to the throne. Mansur’s trusted lieutenant Abu Muslim Khurasani’s strategy succeeded and Abdullah was captured. He died in captivity.

This made Abu Muslim a great shot who began asserting himself. Mansur was shrewd enough to guess his intentions. Inviting him to attend the court, he got him killed, to breathe a sigh of relief.

The revolt against the Umayyads was carried in the name of the “Family of the holy Prophet”. When the Umayyads fell, the Abbasids side-tracked the Fatimids. They chose their own caliph, Muhammad, a great grand son of Imam Hassan. For his noble and fair character, he was called An-Nafs–us–Zakiya (the Pure Soul).

The Abbasids surpassed the Umayyads in tyranny against the Fatimids. Nafs–us–Zakiya rose in rebellion with his brother Ibrahim. He made Madinah as his capital while Ibrahim chose Basrah. Mansur sent forces to fight against them. Muhammad was defeated in the very first battle. The Abbasid commander Isa sent his head to Mansur. Ibrahim was also killed and thus Mansur was assured of peace.

Mutual feuds among the Muslims made the Romans ambitious to exploit the opportunity to their advantage. In the counter-attack, the Muslims drove away the Roman raiders with great slaughter and forced the Byzantine emperor to sue for peace.

Mansur deserves credit for founding the city of Baghdad on an ambitious level. Baghdad meaning “given by God” preceded modern town planning technology. He chose the city for several reasons – military, business as well as abundance of water from Tigris:

“It is excellent as a military camp. Here is Tigris to put us in touch with lands as far as China and bring to us all that the sea yields……… then there is Euphrates to carry for us all that Syria… and adjacent lands have to offer” (Hitti : 292).

Completed in four years the ‘Medinat al- Salam’ (City of Peace) cost 4,883,000 dirhams for the labour of a hundred thousand architects, craftsmen and labourers.

Circular in form, hence called the Round City (al–Mudawwarah) with double brick walls, a deep moat and a third inner most wall rising ninety feet… there were four equi-distant gates radiating like spokes of a wheel… the whole forming concentric circles, with the caliphal palace, with the Golden Gate (Bab-ud-Dahab) on account of its gilded entrance or the green Dome (al-Gubbah al–Khadrah) as the hub. Besides the palace stood the Great Mosque. The dome of the audience chamber rose to a height of one hundred and thirty feet……

In a few years the town grew into an emporium of trade and commerce and a political center of the greatest international importance (It was this that the Bush Administration wanted to wipe from the surface of earth). As if called into existence by a magician’s wand it competed (and even surpassed) Ctesiphon, Babylon, Nineveh, and Ur and attained a degree of prestige and splendour unrivalled in the middle ages.

‘Cleanliness is a part of faith’: so runs a Prophetic tradition. However, the idea of such cleanliness was obnoxious to the West. The heir to the British throne did not wash his head for two years and a few British crowns died without having taken a single bath. Interesting to note is the fact that Baghdad during al–Muqtadir boasted of 27,000 public baths which later on rose to 60,000. The baths in addition to the hygienic aspect served as resorts of amusement and luxury (like the modern swimming pools). Another interesting fact is to note that women were allowed their use on especially reserved days.

Mansur (775 CE) was succeeded by his son Mahdi. As major battles had already decided the fate of several aspirants, his period saw peace prevailing. Whatever was forced on them, the Muslims managed to remain victorious. However, there was an interesting event in the rise and fall of Muqanna who claimed to be God. In order to conceal his damaged eye he used to wear a golden mask. He, like Aswad Ansi, used to demonstrate some tricks of jugglery. Taking his followers behind him, he came to challenge Mahdi. As he could not hold ground against the king, he committed suicide after his defeat. Mahdi died in 785 CE in an accident when he fell from a horse while chasing an animal.

It was during Mahdi’s period that Irene, the Byzantine Regent of Constantine VI, mustered a force of 90,000 and invaded Muslim territory. Harun was asked to defend the invasion. Sweeping across Asia Minor, the Muslim forces reached the shores of Bosphorous immediately opposite Constantinople. Irene was forced to accept a humiliating peace on promise of an annual tribute.

Al Mahdi constructed a road from Baghdad to Makkah and enlarged the Haram–e–Ka’aba. He established a postal service of mules and camels which, in fact, was meant for espionage as the post master used to be government intelligence officer reporting activities of the rebels staying in caravanserais that he had built all along the roads.

Mahdi’s ten-year rule brought prosperity to people. During his reign, the society acquired a cosmopolitan character as the Arabs began losing their supremacy. The Persian costumes became the fashion of the court. Mahdi’s wife Khaizuran, a beauty of her time, had considerable influence and used to exercise authority. It was her interference that her son Hadi who succeeded his father resented. Mother and son had strained relations, which are alleged to be the cause of his death within a year of his succession to the crown. Mahdi had made a will according to which Hadi was to be succeeded by his brother Harun. Hadi wanted Harun to renounce his claim that made him alert. Suspecting some foul play he sneaked away to Raqqa. In order to persuade Harun to renounce his claim, Hadi arrested Harun’s teacher Yahya b. Khalid in order to bring pressure on Harun.

There are three versions of Hadi’s death. One is the harem intrigue placing the blame of poisoning by his own mother. Another version shows him dying of a malignant tumor in the stomach while another suggests that he fell to his death on a reed bed when the courtier whom he had pushed clutched him while falling and both of them met their hoary end.

Harun al-Rashid came to the throne in 786 CE to become one of the most legendary figures in chronicle. His period, immortalized in the The Arabian Nights, witnessed the climax of splendour and pomp of Baghdad, with magnificent buildings and well-laid gardens. With beautiful palaces and well-adorned mosques with tall minarets, it boasted of commodities from every country of the world. With riches abounding affluence ruled supreme. The country basked in the sunshine of prosperity. As the proverb goes – there was God’s plenty.

Before we have a glimpse of the affluence let us turn to the political scenario first after Irene’s departure as Byzantine empress – the first woman to rule in Byzantine history. Her successor, Nicephorus I, repudiated the peace treaty signed by the empress and instead of sending the annual tribute, demanded from Harun the refund of tribute already paid. Influenced with rage, al–Rashid called for pen and ink and wrote on the back of the scornful epistle:

‘In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. From Harun, the Commander of the Believers, to Nicephorus, the Dog of Rome. Verily, I have read thy letter, O son of an infidel mother. As far the answer, it shall be for thine eyes to see, not for thine ears to hear. Salam.” (Hitti: 300).

His expedition ravaged Asia Minor, which culminated in not only the capture of Heraclea and Tyana in 806 CE and the imposition, in addition to the tribute, of an ignominious tax on the emperor himself, and on each member of his household. This was the topmost point ever reached in Abbasid history.

During Harun’s regime (786 to 809 CE), Baghdad became a world-center of prodigious wealth and international significance; ‘a city with no fear throughout the world’. Much is said of the splendour that was Rome and glory that was Greek. Let us read a few pages of Baghdad’s pomp during the Abbasid reign.

The marriage ceremony of the Caliph al–Mamun to the eighteen-year-old Buran, daughter of his Vizir, celebrated (in 825CE) in such fabulous expenditure of money that it has lived in Arabic literature as the unforgettable extravaganza of the age. At the nuptials a thousand pearls of unique size were showered from a gold tray upon the couple that sat on a golden mat studded with pearls and sapphires. A two hundred rotll candle of ambergris turned the night into day. Balls of musk, each containing a ticket naming an estate or a slave or some such gift, were showered on the royal princes and dignitaries. (Hitti: 302). The marriage cost over fifty million dirhams (Hasan: 219)

In 917CE, the Caliph al–Muqtadir received, in his palace, with great ceremony and pomp the envoys of the young Constantine VII. The Caliphal array included 1,60,000 cavalry and footmen, 7000 black and white eunuchs and 700 chamberlains. In the parade a hundred lions marched and in the capital palace hung 38,000 curtains of which 12,500 were gilded, besides 22,000 rugs. The envoys were so struck with awe and admiration that they first mistook the chamberlain’s office and then the vizir’s for the royal audience. Especially impressed were they with the Hall of the Tree (Dar–al–Shajarah) which housed an artificial tree of gold and silver weighing 500,000 drams, in the branches of which were lodged birds of the same precious metals so constructed that they chirped by automatic devices. In the garden they marveled at the artificially dwarfed palm trees, which by skilled cultivation yielded dates of rare varieties. (Hitti: 303)

Returning to Harun’s regime, let us recall a few interesting events:

Yahya, his Barmakid tutor, who was thrown into jail by Hadi, was rewarded with the post of chief minister. To his mother, Khaizuran, he had granted permission to hold her own court. While his mother died after three years; he had to get rid of his chief minister, Yahya, with force and arrest as well as confiscate his property about which we shall know after a little while.

Idris, a grandson of Hussain had escaped to Maghrib during Hadi’s regime to set up an independent Idris state. Instead of sending a military expedition, he resorted to a stratgem. In 786 CE, he sent an agent, Samakh, who posed as a physician to Idris’s court. Having gained the ruler’s confidence, Shamakh poisoned him and managed to escape before he could be apprehended. Shamakh was rewarded with the post of chief postmaster in Egypt.

Harun was highly pious and righteous. He used to say 100 cycles of Nafl prayer in addition to the Farz prayers. There was no limit to his charity. He was greatly fond of Hajj and Jihad: he did not miss them any single year. Mild by nature, he used to weep when any wise counsel was given to him.

Once a renowned scholar, Ibn Shammak, visited the court. During their conversation Harun felt thirsty. When water was brought before him and he was about to drink, Ibn Shammak interrupted to ask: “How much will you pay for this glass of water if it is denied to you?” Harun replied: “The entire land, the entire land”. When he had finished drinking the water, Ibn Shammak again enquired how much would he pay if the water was not discharged (as urine or sweat). Harun replied again, “The entire kingdom.” Hearing this reply, Ibn Shammak exclaimed: “Why then should one fight for a kingdom whose worth is less than a glass of water? It does not justify shedding blood for a glass of water.” Hearing this counsel Harun wept bitterly.

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